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Restoring the Forest One Property at a Time - Property Owners Aim to Increase Resiliency With Restoration Work

...and the NRCS was there to help.
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Forestry

Restoring the forest one property at a time - Property owners aim to increase resiliency with restoration work. 

Landowners in forest stand

The idea of cutting down a tree is an emotional one — it certainly was for Anita Goldmann, a private landowner who lives just south of Piedra. 

“As a longtime tree-hugger, I adhered to the notion that every tree is good for the environment and worthy of our protection,” said Goldmann. “The thought of cutting down a live tree was, and is, heart wrenching.” 

As Goldmann described, cutting down a tree often brings up thoughts of “The Lorax,” where forests are exploited, is respected and eventually disappear. The truth of forest health is far more nuanced than “The Lorax,” despite its message being commendable. Just as it is an unhealthy extreme to cut down all the trees in a forest, so too is assuming that humans should leave every tree and protect them at all costs, which can lead to catastrophic wildfire and a forest that isn’t resilient.

A resilient forest lies somewhere in between. It may seem like that “in between” is inaction, allowing nature to take care of itself. This however, ignores the 10,000 year history of humans interacting with the forests here, especially the more recent history of forest and fire management.

Part of living in a landscape with fire is the responsibility to live with nature, not apart from it, which means understanding how our actions have shaped the current conditions and how they can help future ones. Sometimes, that means cutting down some trees. 

Forest resilience is something that the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP) is collaboratively pursuing in the Pagosa Springs area, both on public land, like the San Juan National Forest, and private land.

“With the dense forest growth on our property and the dry conditions of the past few years, the threat of an all-consuming forest fire was clearly evident and a considerable source of worry,” added Goldmann. “We ultimately reached out to Bill Trimarco of Wildfire Adapted to inform ourselves about a sensible approach to fire mitigation. At that first meeting, we also came to a better understanding of a healthy Ponderosa population and what it would take to start the process of regeneration. And that is where the [Natural Resources Conservation Service] stepped into the picture.”

This fall, the SJHFHP hosted a tour on the Goldmanns’ property to discuss forest restoration and the importance of individual responsibility. The project on their land was funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program. 

Through that program, the Goldmanns received financial and technical assistance. Projects like these are important for engaging community members in conversations about ecological restoration — all the more so at the Goldmanns’, which is highly visible along the side of the highway.

Forests need disturbances like fire, disease and blowdown events to maintain an equilibrium. If we are living in these forests and want to avoid those disturbances, then we need to imitate them by our own means to ensure a resilient forest and reintroduce them where we can.

“The NRCS is prioritizing forest restoration and regeneration in ponderosa pine ecosystems,” said Kyle O’Neill, former forester for the NRCS and current timber management assistant for the San Juan National Forest. “None of these treatments are complete until the natural disturbance regime and fire return interval is reintroduced into these ecosystems, but working to this level of restoration is huge for the NRCS and private landowners.” 

For the Goldmanns the process started slowly because this isn’t something that is easy to understand or accept. After all, we often live in the forest so that there’s a forest. It takes time to understand ourselves as stewards of something from which we often feel disconnected.

The project itself was performed by a local contractor who was chosen by the Goldmanns. Of their 72 acres, 50 were treated, meaning that trees were cut to reduce density and branches and twigs were masticated — ground up by a machine. The logs were hauled off-site and used for firewood and lumber by a local sawmill.

“We look forward to witnessing the ensuing growth and transformation of the landscape and hope that the steps taken today will result in a healthy forest for generations to come,” said Goldmann. 

While the Goldmanns have made large strides on their land, a hurdle in the process of restoring contiguous forests is land ownership itself. Sweeping changes are difficult to accomplish given the patchwork of private land, national forest, Bureau of Land Management, town and county land, and more.

The SJHFHP provides a forum for conversations about forest health and where best to focus our collective efforts. That local input and prioritization sits in an even larger collaborative landscape, but the work starts small — house by house, glade by glade, tree by tree. 

“Working with the Goldmanns has been a wonderful experience because they really care about their property and want to make it more resistant towards fire and resilient in an unknown future,” said O’Neill. 

If you are interested in learning more about forest restoration and wildfire mitigation or about the SJHFHP, reach out to Alex Handloff, the SJHFHP coordinator, at alex@mountainstudies.org.

  • Article courtesy of the Pagosa Sun Newspaper
  • Written by Alex Handloff, Mountain Studies Institute
  • Image courtesy of Kyle O’Neill